Grasping Thorns

“But he who dares not grasp the thorn Should never crave the rose." ― A. Brontë

Month: June, 2013

I Am No Bird, Not Even a Wild Goose.

In Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, one of the many memorial moments occurs when Jane asserts to the too-often-exasperating Rochester: “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will.”

The quote plays in my mind whenever I’m criticized for thinking differently from those in the rural conservative town in which I grew up. But I started to think that if I had to be a bird, I’d choose to be a wild goose, because a couple of years ago, I was super-excited to discover the annual Wild Goose Festival. Wild Goose, to be held this year in Hot Springs, NC, calls itself  “a community gathered at the intersection of justice, spirituality, music and art.”

I attended the 2012 Wild Goose Festival, but I won’t be attending this year. There were things I liked about it: (1) As a rule, I enjoy festivals focused on social justice and activism for many reasons, not the least of which is the fun of imagining Glenn Beck’s (and his ilk’s) reaction to them in the form of exploding heads; (2) I can say that I’ve heard and — in some cases — met, religious leaders like John Dear (one of Desmond Tutu’s bffs), Frank Schaeffer (who took a particular liking to Arina) and Jim Wallis (a recurring Daily Show guest), all of whom are deemed important enough to have their own Wikipedia pages; and (3) I met dear friend Dr. Roger Ray (who should have his own Wikipedia page) in person for the first time at the Festival! Roger was no doubt the only person there as progressive in his theology as Scott and I are, so we were able to sit on the proverbial back pew together and roll our eyes at the evangelical undercurrent that the organizers of the Festival seemed unable or even unwilling to avoid.

Example: Scott, who was raised Southern Baptist, started visibly twitching at the last performance, because of its similarity to the alter calls he experienced every Sunday growing up. The only difference? Rather than asking the congregants to come forward and pledge or rededicate their lives to Jesus, the Wild Goose speaker asked his audience members to come forward with a slip of paper pledging to make the world better in some tangible way. We’re all for making the world better, of course. I certainly prefer the revised version. But Scott couldn’t take the conspicuous (even showy) nature of a ritual steeped in evangelical conservatism, so Roger and I found ourselves following him to the beer tent instead.

In response to his experience at Wild Goose, Roger is hosting his own conference in Springfield, Missouri, featuring Bishop John Shelby Spong as keynote speaker. We’ll be attending the Spong conference, which will be academic in nature, instead of the Festival. Out of curiosity, though, I perused the lineup of speakers for Wild Goose 2013, and I think I’m beginning to understand what irks me about many of the self-proclaimed progressive voices in popular Christian culture:

334725_4175562431219_735312861_oVoice #1: Frank Schaeffer, Wild Goose speaker 2012: Schaeffer is a brilliant, dynamic speaker, and his personal history, particularly his move from evangelical fundamentalism of the . . . well . . . Francis Shaeffer variety to liberal Christianity, is fascinating.

Roger and I were very much on board with Schaeffer after his first presentation (Scott arrived late), but we had abandoned ship by the end of the second. The offense? In Schaeffer’s second presentation, he attempted to justify his support of the Eastern Orthodox Church despite the fact that it, as a denomination, discriminates against gays and women. He admitted that he would be proud if, one day, his granddaughter Lucy effects much needed change in the church regarding gender equality, but he asserted that it’s not his battle and that he accepts this imperfection in the denomination.

Roger was furiously scribbling in his notebook and muttering expletives, and he spent the rest of the conference trying to position himself and us so that Schaeffer could read the back of our matching t-shirts, which read: “If your church says that you have to be male to preach, that church has a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of genitalia in the writing and delivery of sermons” — a Roger Ray original quote.

In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King says that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Not your battle? That’s not good enough, Schaeffer.

Voice #2: Glennon Melton, Wild Goose Speaker 2013: I like Glennon Melton’s style. She’s like a younger, hipper Anne Lamott. (Note: I take great comfort in the fact that this is a relatively unknown blog, but in case that changes I reserve the right to delete the previous sentence and deny ever suggesting that Anne Lamott is not, in fact, young and hip.)

Here’s how Glennon describes herself: “I love Jesus, gay people, adoption, and rearranging furniture. In the interest of combining all my loves, I have asked Jesus to help me adopt Nate Berkus.” See? A younger, hipper Anne Lamott.

I liked the first post I read by her, “A Mountain I’m Willing To Die On” (a letter to her son), so much that I linked to it on my Facebook page, even though this part really annoyed me: “Recently there was some talk in my Bible study about homosexuality being sinful. I quoted Mother Teresa and said, ‘When we judge people we have no time to love them.’ I was immediately reprimanded for my blasphemy by a woman who reminded me of 1 Corinthians 6:9–10. But I was confused because this woman was speaking. In church. And she was also wearing a necklace. And I could see her hair, baby. She had no head covering. All of which are sooooo totally against the New Testament Bible Rules. And so I assumed that she had decided not to follow the parts of the Bible that limited her particular freedoms, but to hold fast to the parts that limit the freedoms of others. I didn’t point this out at the time, because she wasn’t a bad person. People are doing the best they can, mostly. It’s best not to embarrass anyone.”

Everything is awesome and funny and refreshing . . . but the last three sentences. I’m of the Elie Wiesel mindset — that we do *not* stand idly by, especially when someone is being mean to someone else.

And, yes: the person who Melton was hesitant to embarrass *was* being mean to the LGBTQ community. Perhaps there was a member of that community in the audience, and the very fact that there could have been requires us to call out hypocrisy and insist on justice everywhere.

You’re afraid of embarrassing someone who is being hurtful to others? That’s not good enough, Melton.

I agree with Roger, who, in response to anti-gay remarks, says: “I am no longer willing to pretend that there is anyone who needs more information or a chance to process all of this. Any remaining prejudice is, in my eyes, just that, prejudice . . . It is not respectable, it is not understandable, it is not a matter of opinion any more than we would, in the 21st century, afford such issues as slavery and child labor the luxury of being just a matter of personal opinion. There may have been a time when we needed to be patient with those who needed some time to catch up with reality but that time is surely past. You can choose to remain in ignorant prejudice, that is your individual right, but we don’t have to pretend that ignorant prejudice is not ignorant prejudice.”

And then — SIGH — Melton does it AGAIN. Currently, Huff Po Religion is featuring Melton’s “I Love Gay People and I Love Christians. I Choose All,” in which she insists that everyone, both gay people and anti-gay Christians, are invited to her table — because she’s a peacemaker.

Two things: (1) anti-gay Christians aren’t necessarily going to want to be at your table, across from the LGBTQ section; and what if one of the anti-gay Christians at your table is that woman from your Bible Study, and she starts insulting your LGBTQ guests?

(2) you can’t “make peace” by trying to find common ground when one group’s argument is built upon asserting the inequality of another group. Rather than taking the “I’ll just invite everyone over for dinner, and it’ll be fun” approach, a true peacemaker is willing to take a stand and say “no” to injustice, and the person promoting it, in the hope of ushering in a more just and equitable society.

Or, as Roger says: “Lord deliver us from shallow religion . . . From using the language of friendship and love too easily . . . Save us from a self-protecting and facile society that acquiesces to silence in the face of prejudice and violence.”


Dear Christian Evangelicals: Please Stop Calling Me a False Prophet and/or Satan

Seriously. I know you’re angry, because I identify as a progressive Christian. See how I always shout *progressive* first? It’s because I’m as loathe to be identified as an evangelical as you are to be identified as a progressive. So, I understand that part of your anger has to do with the fact that I dare call myself Christian at all, since  progressives (in case you didn’t know) subscribe to the following . . .

(1) about faith: “Faith is not about concrete answers, religious absolutes, creeds, or dogma. Faith is about the search for understanding, the raising of important questions, the open honesty of having doubt, and the realization that no one has it all completely right nor does any human hold all the answers.”

(2) about Scripture: “The words of Jesus found in the gospels – specifically, what he states are the greatest commandments: ‘Love God with all of your essence and love your neighbor as you should love yourself’ – are to be the focus for any disciple of him. We submit the rest of Scripture to the position of ‘sacred commentary.'”

(3) about other religions, and no religion: “Recognition and affirmation of the differing belief systems of others . . . is crucial.”

(4) about science: “God created humans with a brain capable of discovery and reason. God does not require us to ‘check our brains at the door,’ along with our coat and hat in order to be a part of the faith.”

Believe me, I get it. You feel like my version of Christianity is seriously cramping your style. I get it, because I feel like your version of Christianity is seriously cramping mine. In that way, at least, we’re more alike than you’d care to admit.

What concerns me is the implication that this difference in philosophy makes me evil, or at least an instrument of evil. Such talk got people burned at the stake back in the day. Scott says I *totally* would have been accused of witchcraft and burned at the stake, and I think he’s probably right. sigh.

As someone who comes from an evangelical background, I feel compelled to say: I don’t think you’re evil, even though I think you’re wrong about *a lot* of things. But, for the most part, I think you’re trying to stay true to a tradition you associate with the people you know and love (whether grandparents, parents, siblings or all of the above); you feel loyalty to a church community that has no doubt been generous to you in many ways; you get tremendous comfort from reading Scripture selectively (b/c you *do* read it selectively), and from praying and then feeling like all the blessings in your life are signs of God’s favor (it’s always fun to feel like you’re a favorite — says me, an only child).

I. get. it.

For me to have abandoned that tradition for one that I see as truer and better is no doubt unsettling. But I’m not trying to convert you (see #3, above). I’m just trying to convince you that I’m not dangerous in the form of being a false prophet and/or Satan. So, to that end:

Criticism #1, paraphrased: “You are a false prophet and/or Satan because you don’t take the Bible seriously.”


I watched the documentary Hellbound last week, and I want Jaime Clark-Soles (Associate Professor of New Testament at Perkins School of Theology) to be one of my new bffs, because she explains why criticism #1 makes her feel as though her head is going to explode:

“I always get on guard whenever someone uses the phrase ‘seriously’ — ‘taking [the Bible] seriously’ — because by ‘seriously’ they don’t mean: ‘Have you learned all the Biblical languages, and all the languages around it that were being spoken, and [the languages] in the centuries after it, including Coptic?’ They don’t mean that.  I sat through ‘Eastern Roman Provinces’ in graduate school. I don’t care about eastern Roman provinces, but I care about the Bible; therefore, I had to care about eastern Roman provinces, because guess what? That’s the context within which the Bible was written. When I say ‘take the Bible seriously,’ I mean you better go study and you better care enough to do the hard, really boring stuff.”

In short, the reason I read books (both primary and secondary); and watch documentaries; and listen to all kinds of people from my religious tradition, other religious traditions, and no religious tradition is that I take God/ethics/religious texts very seriously indeed. I haven’t learned Coptic (I’m a disaster with languages in general), but that’s why I seek out people, like Jaime Clark-Soles, who have.

This does not make me a false prophet and/or Satan.

Criticism #2, paraphrased: “You’re a false prophet and/or Satan, because the Bible warns us about people like you, and the Bible is inerrant.”


People who say the Bible is inerrant haven’t read the Bible very well — not the “hard, really boring stuff” anyway. I remember reading the God-sends-bears-to-kill-the-42-kids-teasing-Elisha story when I was, like, 8 years old. I remember thinking that I was reading the *grimmest* of a Grimm’s fairy tale, not the true account of a God-ordained kid massacre.

The Bible isn’t inerrant, because the human beings who wrote it weren’t. They didn’t understand the Earth revolves around the sun (obvious when you read Joshua 10), let alone the science behind, say, natural disasters and human sexuality.

And, despite what you say, you don’t treat the Bible as inerrant either. If you did, you wouldn’t eat shellfish, or wear polyester, or permit divorce, or charge and pay interest, or cut your hair certain ways . . . the list goes on, and on, and on.

We build our theology based on the Bible, but we do so thoughtfully.

Criticism #3, paraphrased: “You are a false prophet and/or Satan, because you trust humans rather than God.”

I trust love, and if God is love . . . well, yeah. You see: 1 John 4.8 just happens to be one of those verses in my “canon within the canon.” And I trust humans who are loving to others — in the most generous and reckless and ridiculous ways — because there is something out-of-this-world intangibly beautiful about them.

This does not make me a false prophet and/or Satan.

Brian McLaren (author of Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Muhammed Cross the Road? Christian Identity in a Multi-faith World — super fun title!) claims: “in a pluralistic world, a religion is judged by the benefits it brings to its nonmembers.” If he’s right, evangelical Christianity is in serious trouble. But that doesn’t mean it can’t . . . well . . . evolve into something better.

The first step? Start empathizing with, rather than demonizing, nonmembers — or, in other words, stop calling people false prophets and/or Satan.